Notes for later

I’ve been conferencing for a couple of days, and now there are a batch of new, in some cases quite long, posts from my favorite bloggers; so perhaps this is a sign that I should get on with some grading, and use the new reading material as reward. The current grading is not onerous, so all the more reason to get it done. But since I’ve been so grouchy, I feel I should at least say Thank You to those of you who are posting!

Things I might want to post about, when I get time and inclination to do so:
*my expectations for students who want to dissertate with me. I don’t anticipate this situation arising any time soon; LRU doesn’t attract medievalists. But a couple of experiences in the last few years have made me think I should articulate some thoughts in case I ever do have another potential Ph.D. student.
*my fantasy mentoring committee, the people I imagine urging me to my desk in the morning, and why I need a committee, not just a single mentor (real or imaginary).
*thoughts on changing careers, inspired in part by a friend IRL, in part by T.E. and her previous incarnation. I think I’m unlikely to make a change, but very likely to think a lot about it for awhile. I’ll probably be satisfied by vicarious experiences, because I am basically a cat: I Fear Change.
*update on my wish list for 2010. Actually, I could probably do that now: if I do as much in the pool tomorrow as I’ve done on other days this week, I will have swum 2 1/4 miles this week, on top of 2 last week. I’m working up to that 3-mile wish. It seems likely that I can move some of my enthusiastic plants to campus, to beautify areas outside my building, so that will free up space for my garden plans (I cannot bring myself to uproot healthy plants that have nowhere to go). There’s no sign of France yet, but I’ll get Ireland and England. And Basement Cat generally spends all day roaming the house so long as a human is home to intervene when he gets obstreperous. It’s a long way from the days when after 20 minutes he’d get over-excited and have to go back to his room.

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Why do I hate grading?

(Clearly I’m a big old grouch lately. It’s February. And have I mentioned snow?) But this is not a let-me-count-the-ways sort of post. Seriously: what’s so awful about it? I read a batch of papers. I underline problems with grammar, mechanics, word choice, in the interest of making students figure out what the problems are (and in the hope that they’ll come to office hours or ask questions in class if they don’t know how to use a semi-colon—but I’m not going to work as their editor). I write comments about thesis statement, topic sentences, and so on, and work on the computer so I can cut and paste when multiple people need the same comment. This doesn’t sound so hard. It lets me check on what my students have understood about the text, how coherently they can express their thoughts, and whether they grasp the rudiments of a literary argument.

The current batch of papers is not appalling. My students are tolerably coherent, they all understand the text, and nearly all come within shouting distance of an argument. The most common problem is wordiness; many of them write otherwise perfectly correctly, but can’t resist creating sentences that repeat elements from earlier sentences. The repeated elements are probably supposed to function as transitions. Transitions are necessary to help your reader understand what you are saying. Your reader should understand what you are saying because otherwise the reader won’t be able to follow the argument. The argument in a two-page paper shouldn’t be so easily lost. It’s a bad thing to easily lose your reader.

And at that point I start muttering, “Don’t wait till we get home, shoot me now,” and wander off to surf the blogosphere. You all aren’t posting often enough. I have been reduced to writing in my journal, playing with the cats, and doing laundry as avoidance rituals. If I can’t convince my students to write more concisely before the next paper is due, I may wind up with all my assignments written for next year, and a very clean house—unless I can also convince my favorite bloggers to post long, substantive posts several times a day when the next paper comes due.

Why don’t I just go work on a conference paper in between student efforts? Believe me, I’ve thought about it. (A) I would vastly, vastly rather work on my next conference paper, and so I won’t let myself do it, because I have this perverted work ethic that says I have to finish the grading first, even though I do all sorts of other things while I’m gathering the strength to return to the repetitive sentences; and (b) I am very easily influenced by others’ style. When I’m on a Jane Austen binge, you can tell; when I’ve been reading a lot of Latin prose, my English becomes absurdly convoluted as I try to shape sentences in ways that work fine in a highly inflected language. I have to clear out the repetition, somehow, before getting back to my own writing.

At any rate, one batch is done. Another awaits, but has no hope for attention before Thursday. And it suddenly occurs to me that I have not yet read a writing-group submission that is to be discussed tomorrow. Alas and alack. And I have to drop off my car before work, and then spend any free time available before noon reading more of my colleagues’ student evaluations (they really know their stuff, my colleagues! or so I am told by their students). So . . . well, the most important stuff will get done. Sleep and my brakes matter more to me than some of the other items. Don’t wait till we get home . . . .

Annual reviews: why I hate them

Every year, we (members of my department) turn in four different forms reporting on everything we have done for the past year/two years/six years/career (depending on form). There’s the what-have-I-done-for-you-lately form that goes to the next level up, and the teaching report, the scholarship report, and the CV, which remain in the department. Different kinds of work “count” for different amounts of time.

If you’re just a member of the faculty, you complain about having to fill out all the different information in different places, and struggle to figure out what goes where, and whether 2003 is six years ago or seven, and then you hand everything in and you’re done with it.

I’m on the committee that reads through all these forms and assigns a number to everyone’s performance. I also get to (read: have to) read everyone else’s student evaluations, which is no more fun than reading my own, and look at syllabi and sometimes other teaching-related materials. If there’s time, I might even read some of my colleagues’ publications.

Why do I hate reading them?

Well, let’s see. Some of my colleagues publish much more than I do, and I am jealous. I wonder where they find the time, and whether they have partners who do a great deal on the home front, or if they live on frozen pizza, and if they can only do this because if you’re writing about an author who is still living you don’t have to wade through 150 years (or more) of scholarship.

Some of my colleagues publish much less than I do, and I am jealous. I am convinced that they have rich and fulfilling personal lives, involving either warm, close families who eat dinner together, share games nights, and offer great emotional support, or else involving travel to New York every weekend, with walks in the Village, fantastic food, and season tickets to both ABT and NYCB. (Or plug in whatever you’d get season tickets to: those are my picks.)

Some of my colleagues get terrific teaching evaluations from their students, and I am jealous. I wonder if they are simply naturally talented, in which case is it really fair to reward people for personality traits they were born with, when others give exactly the same kinds of assignments and don’t get the same results? Some of them, of course, may get good evaluations because they give really easy assignments and good grades, and I wonder if I should do the same (not to game the evaluations, but to buy time for research). Some of my colleagues don’t get good evals at all, and I think “There but for the grace of something or other go I.” Because these people seem perfectly reasonable, decent, and conscientious to me; why do they make such a different impression on their students?

Some of my colleagues do much more service than I do (hard to believe, but true), and then I feel bad for complaining about the amount that I do. Most of them do about the same amount, but I am convinced that in many cases, they are working on committees or other service work that are much more fun than the ones I’m on. In fact, in at least one case, having been on the other committee before, I know for a fact it’s more satisfying (at least for me), and I’d like to get back on it, but there are term limits, so I have to wait for awhile.

Clearly I have a bad case of grass-is-greener syndrome.

Seriously, it’s pretty easy to evaluate service, and not too bad to go through scholarship: number of pages is an objective calculation, and while we can argue about the value of various journals, at least circulation figures and acceptance rate are usually available and incontestable. But teaching is a bear. What is good teaching, and how do you tell? We don’t test students as freshmen and again as seniors; we have no mechanism to gather their opinions of their education five years after graduation, when they’ve had time to figure out what stuck with them and what turned out to be useful no matter how irrelevant or hateful it seemed at the time. Is it good teaching to make students happy so they are receptive to new knowledge and willing to attempt new skills? Is it making them revise papers multiple times? Is it rigorous reading and writing assignments, perhaps with workshopping and performance requirements? Can students really evaluate good teaching, or should the committee just look for possible problems like complaints about the time it takes to return papers, a small number of assignments, or consistent professorial lateness? (And even these need to be double-checked: is “a long time” ten days or a month? “He’s always late and cancels office hours” sometimes translates to “one week when his whole family was sick he was late twice and cancelled physical office hours but was available via e-mail.”)

My questions are rhetorical. Dr Crazy, among others, has discussed teaching the kinds of students we get at regional universities far more thoughtfully and incisively than I think I could. I’m not trying to get into a debate about good teaching practice, but rather to show why it is difficult to demystify the annual evaluation of teaching. Every year, some members of the evaluation committee rotate off and new ones come on. So, though the name is the same, the committee is different; members interpret evidence differently, put more or less stress on student happiness, spend more or less time looking at supporting documents; and the numbers change.

We have to do these evaluations. But I sometimes think the most important element is the self-reflection they induce: what have I done lately? Where is my time going? Are my students well-served by the number of assignments I give? Trying to compare my colleagues’ apples, kumquats, quinces and raspberries, and assign a score to such very different fruit, is difficult and frustrating for all concerned. I wish we could just assume everybody is doing the best s/he can, and leave it at that.

UTA: Ink has a good post up about student evaluations.

One month down


Incredibly (at least to me . . . check with my students, as it may seem longer to them), we’re a month into the spring term already. This means we’re in the thick of annual reviews (and I’m on the committee that does the reviewing), our candidates (one opening this year) have been and gone, and there are nine weeks until I have to give my first conference paper of the year. I wish I had something more interesting to report.

We still have a lot of house-related stuff to do. On top of everything else, the dining room chandelier collapsed a couple of days ago. Its collapse was not terminal, but it now shines from the top shelf of the cat tree. I think we will replace it with the light pictured above (which I wanted to place below, but Blogger has its own ideas about layout). We meant to replace that light anyway, but I would have preferred not to have to think about it for a bit longer.

I should go to the gym, but Purry B.C. has climbed into my lap.